Albert Camus book “The Plague” speaks of the inherent passivity innate in most people in the face of social justice. One could say that he described the same sneering indifference toward social justice that you find in a Daily Mail comment field about benefit recipients.

existentialismAs long as benefits aren’t received by the individual, the individual is indifferent to the benefits. And, worse still, the individual somehow perceives that the benefit impacts the individual negatively. You get comments like “why should I pay taxes to pay for those scroungers”. The othering of the sentiment is in full force, because of the passivity and the ignorance about the “scrounger’s” situation.

Only when the people in the book are impacted themselves does the passivity break down, and collective measures are taken to combat the disease in their midst. Only when the town the book is about is quarantined by outside forces, and the individuals are impacted by that outside force, does the people in the book start to address the underlying problem. So, then, it becomes a question of epistemology, doesn’t it?

Epistemology is the field of philosophy about what is known, and what can be known, and the limits of what can be known. It is also the field about what is truth, and what is conjecture and what is prejudice. I suppose it also deals with what is knowable in objective reality, and what is not. For one that’s always been an over-thinker, epistemology is interesting. It acts as a sort of kit, a guide, a shackle on thoughts.

I bring up this field because of the Camus book, and to try to understand the people in it, and to try to put those people in a relation to my regular life outside the book, and to the people I see on a daily basis, as well as to strangers who aren’t so much people are monikers online or faces on the telly or in a newspaper. It seems that there is a definite risk of othering these people, and having a bit of an epistemological approach can perhaps limit that so that I actually feel like I’m engaging with actual people.

I was thinking about Camus as I was reading an essay by Jean Paul Sartre earlier, about what existentialism was and how it should be defined. In Sartre’s view, existentialism is humanism in that it deals with all of the human. Warts and everything. The criticism aimed at existentialism is that it is entirely negative and nihilist, but Sartre tried to show that the philosophy was in fact positive and benign and idealistic.

Camus of course was not an existentialist, and thought that existentialists had it wrong. In Camus view, he wasn’t trying to overcome some alienation from the rest of the world, and wasn’t the outsider looking in. In his book “The Stranger” you can see this most clearly in that the protagonist Meursault never fully relinquish his ambiguity of motivation.

I think I agree with Camus, but from another perspective. I think I am much more of an essentialist than an existentialist. Existentialism does require humans to be apart, separate, distinct, and that’s a much more religious view than I’m comfortable with.

Back to “The Plague” there could be an argument that the passivity of the people in the book is because humans are in some way an essence of the concept of Humanity. Biologically and mentally we are shaped to be a certain way with a certain perception – and a limit to the perception. We can not be something evolution and chemistry disallows us from being.

Morality depends on our perception of the world around us, and on our place in the social hierarchy of humans. Humans are, of course, a very social kind of ape, and sociality belongs in the essence of being human. Solitariness and social avoidance are in contrast to the main idea of being a human.

But if our essence dictates our morality, then existentialism is a dead-end that tries to justify a position outside the essence, and outside what it is to be human. If our biology, psychology and chemistry predetermines a particular outlook, then you can’t separate yourself from your essence. Epistemology, the limit of knowledge, is what makes existentialism a dead-end.